Diplomacy, the art of balance

As a student Rafendi Djamin was imprisoned for his human rights activism under the Indonesian military regime – today he was nominated president of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. But he witnesses how governments and local elites have found other ways to bypass human rights: Often they simply do not implement the laws on the ground.

written for the Peace Boat website, Dec 30, 2012 >>

Rafendi Djamin balances his roles as an activist and a government
representative – a tightrope walk. During a conference with
Peace Boat and local NGOs in the port of Jakarta he spoke about
the relationship between Japan and Indonesia

When Rafendi Djamin invited his favourite author Pramoedya Ananta Toer to the campus of Jakarta University in 1981, he did not foresee what consequences this would have: Being imprisoned for three months without trial under the “anti-subversive law”. Because subversive he was in the eyes of the Suharto military regime: An independent mind, a guy with long hair, who liked to listen to Led Zeppelin and invited a communist to the campus. Threatening, for sure. “I admired Toer for how he describes the power of humanity vis-à-vis a colonial regime. I thought we could learn a lesson about democracy and human dignity from him”, he tells the participants on Peace Boat, as it is heading towards Indonesia. After returning from prison, Djamin was expelled from his university. No other school in his home country accepted him because of the allegations. “Experiencing human rights violations for myself, I wanted to prevent this from happening to others”, he remembers. With the help of a scholarship Djamin went to the Netherlands and studied human rights.

How times go by: 28 years after being imprisoned for
being “subversive”, Rafendi Djamin has been appointed
representative of the Indonesian government

In the same city of Jakarta, 28 years later, the foreign minister nominated Rafendi Djamin to represent Indonesia to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) – a pro bono function. “If that is no sign of progress, what is?” asks Djamin rhetorically. According to a rotation principle, Djamin currently presides over the Commission. An activist from conviction, he has been advocating human rights in Indonesia ever since his imprisonment, first in student groups founded during his European exile, now as Executive Director of the Human Rights Working Group Indonesia, a network of NGOs based in Jakarta. “I am independent and don’t receive any instructions, that is the unwritten contract. Of the ten countries represented in the AICHR, only two governments dared to send an activist into the Commission – Indonesia and Thailand.”

Strong laws, but a weak rule of law: Fighting for
human rights in Indonesia can be frustrating

Many challenges still lie ahead of Djamin: 14 years after the end of the Suharto regime, Indonesia continues to see human rights violations on a large scale. 6,000 cases of land conflicts between local people and businesses, often enhanced by police brutality, have been reported to the National Commission on Human Rights in 2011 alone. Religious minorities suffer from oppression and Papua, the Western half of the island of New Guinea, continues to live under the legacy of the Suharto regime. When it comes to denouncing these violations, Djamin is the first in line: “The decentralisation of Indonesia was meant to eradicate the concentration of power after the Suharto era – a good approach, but it went too far. Local elites and corrupt oligarchies became very powerful, they created their own by-laws which often undermine the national legislation.” More than 200 such by-laws regulate local societies in Indonesia: Some restrict the movement of women under the pretext of “morality”, others limit the freedom of association and again others allow large concessions of land for mining and plantations – often more than the space available in the area. Conflicts with the indigenous population are preprogrammed. The government has started to scrutinize all new by-laws before they are being passed. But Jakarta still has a long way to go: “The ministries in charge have for example no experts in women’s rights”, Djamin shares. “So the government often passes by-laws discriminating against women, because it lacks the knowledge to argue against them.”

Artistic skills: Finding a compromise in ASEAN
requires a lot of patience

Rafendi Djamin stands in front of a large screen outlining the vast ASEAN region with all its economical, political and socially disparities: from poor Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia until the rich island state of Singapore, through which half of the world’s crude oil passes. He bends, kneels down and stretches out: It requires artistic skills to outline the different regions – and an artistic mind to create a common sense about an issue as sensitive as human rights. ASEAN was created in 1967 as a partnership between ten countries in South-East Asia, which should help to prevent the mass atrocities of the Second World War from happening again. But whereas Europe (1950), Americas (1969) and Africa (1979) adopted their regional Declarations on Human Rights decades ago, the issue remained untouched in Asia until the beginning of the 21st century. Until today, gross violations such as torture, extra-judicial killings, forced eviction and abuses against migrant workers and indigenous people remain a serious problem in the whole region – as well as internal conflicts in Mindanao, South Thailand and Myanmar. “It can be difficult to find a common denominator”, Djamin admits. “Sometimes our negotiations end in a deadlock, because some representatives were instructed to cling to a certain opinion.” According to Djamin this happens especially, when it comes to the right to free sexual orientation and gender identity. “Some of my proposals have been perceived as intrusive and intervening on domestic matters. Many governments still regard human rights as an instrument used by outsiders to undermine those in power.”

Rafendi Djamin as seen by the Japanese comic artist
Rokkaku Wataru. “We enjoyed the Christmas dancing
with you”, a participant wrote onto his farewell poster.
The current head of AICHR was a popular guest,
not only on stage
Other countries always had a big influence in the Indonesian archipelago, for better and for worse: Japan and Europe both supported the Suharto military regime, but also assisted in the transition towards democracy. “Our international partners tend to make superficial judgements”, deplores Djamin. “They see Indonesia as a fully fledged democracy, so they actively support the government, but hardly any civil institutions. That trend is wrong. We need to raise awareness and fight against intolerance at the grass roots level.” Today European (20,6 per cent) and Japanese companies (12,6 per cent) are the largest investors in Indonesia. “Trade could be a good entry point to promote human rights”, Rafendi Djamin proposes. “Companies should implement a social clause before coming to an agreement – still, this is often neglected.”
“Sama-sama!” Rafendi Djamin found his place on the boat,
including assisting in an Indonesian language class

Djamin can talk for hours about “mechanisms”, “mapping” and “drafting” declarations – the former subversive student has fully adopted the diplomatic language. His double role as a NGO activist and a government representative is a tightrope walk: On the one hand he tries hard to gain the trust of the Commission and on the other hand he has to convince many NGO friends that he is still independent. In November 2012, AICHR adopted a Human Rights Declaration, which defines common values. However, it does not have the power to stop human rights violations in the field or to hold violators accountable. “It can be frustrating to draft good laws and then receive reports showing that these laws are not implemented”, Djamin confesses. “We can only set standards for the future. Our mandate is too weak to settle cases.” So the year 2013 could again see several thousand cases of land disputes in Indonesia, women being kept inside houses and migrant workers being abused. “You will not see a change in one night. The Commission is still developing, our hands and feet are not complete yet.”